What Are the Customer Behavior Consequences of Low (and High) Employee Trust in Their Employer?

A recent Wall Street Journal ‘At Work’ column led with this sentence: “U.S. employers have a trust problem.” According to a newly-released report on work and employee well-being research conducted by the American Psychological Association:

  • Only about half of U.S. workers feel their employers are upfront with them
  • One quarter of American workers simply don’t trust their employers

That’s not good news for business, and it’s not good news for customers.

Companies display their humanity, stakeholder-centricity, and cultural investment in a number of key ways, two of which are employee compensation and opportunity for professional growth and advancement. In the APA study, conducted in January and February among over 1,500 working adults, under half of the employees felt that they are sharing in the gains realized by their employers as they recover from the 2008 recession. This is, as reflected in the above statistics, a disturbing finding because of the impact it has on employee commitment to the company, to the company’s product and service value proposition, and to the company’s customers.

It has been well-documented that empowered customers are demanding more from brands – convenience, anticipatory service, and (ideally) real-time and contextual personalization, at all points of interaction. However the experience is viewed, in most of the touch point situations, employees are directly or indirectly involved. It’s vital that they be positive and supportive of the brand value proposition, and the organization itself, as well as the customers – - in other words, to be ambassadors. Trust is central to employee ambassadorship, and every enterprise must understand where it is practiced well and where low levels of it can impact both employee and customer behavior.

For companies to create and sustain higher levels of employee ambassadorship, it’s necessary to have customer and employee intelligence specifically designed to close gaps between customer experience, outmoded internal beliefs, poor hiring practices, and rudimentary support and training. It’s also essential that the employee experience be given as much emphasis as the customer experience. If ambassadorship is to flourish, there must be value, and a sense of involvement and shared purpose, for the employee as well as the company and customer – in the form of recognition, reward (financial and training), and career opportunities.

Some well-known companies clearly understand the employee behavior-customer behavior connection. At Zappos, the highly successful online footwear and clothing retailer, there’s a strong belief that ‘your culture is your brand.’ During the hiring process, prospective employees, however talented and experienced, must fit into the culture. Following hiring, all employees – regardless of function or title – are trained in customer loyalty, service, and company values and vision over a four-week period. Two of those weeks are spent are spent on the phone taking calls from customers.

Zappos has defined its company culture in terms of 10 core values, the first of which is “Deliver WOW Through Service”. As explained by CEO, Tony Hsieh:

Every employee can affect your company’s brand, not just the front line employees that are paid to talk to your customers. It can be a positive influence, or a negative influence. We decided a long time ago that we didn’t want our brand to be just about shoes, or clothing, or even online retailing. We decided that we wanted to build our brand to be about the very best customer service and the very best customer experience. We believe that customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company. Our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff – like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers – will happen naturally on its own.

For more than a decade, leading-edge companies have understood that they needed to move beyond employee engagement, to build the mutual trust and positive behavior that results in ambassadorship. In August, 2004, Honeywell International, Inc.’s former Chairman and CEO, David Cole, sent a message to the company’s 120,000+ employees, in which he described their role in the company’s program to build and protect their brands:

Every Honeywell employee is a brand ambassador. With every customer contact and whenever we represent Honeywell, we have the opportunity either to strengthen the Honeywell name or to cause it to lose some of its luster and prestige. Generations of Honeywell employees have built our powerful brands with their hard work, spirit of innovation, passion for quality, and commitment to customers. I am counting on every Honeywell employee to continue that legacy.

Again, ambassadorship is most successful when employees are trusted, recognized, and appreciated, and can participate in the benefit and value they provide to customers. Hal Rosenbluth, former CEO of the highly successful, multi-billion dollar travel management company, Rosenbluth International (which is now part of American Express Travel Related Services), said in his book, The Customer Comes Second:

We’re talking about a change that puts the people in organizations above everything else. They are cared for, valued, empowered, and motivated to care for their clients. When a company puts its people first, the results are spectacular. Their people are inspired to provide a level of service that truly comes from the heart. It can’t be faked. Companies are only fooling themselves when they believe that ‘The Customer Comes First.’ People do not inherently put the customer first, and they certainly don’t do it because their employer expects it. We’re not saying choose your people over your
customers. We’re saying focus on your people because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.

Whether an organization is a major international corporation, or a small, embryonic start-up, these words represent the spirit of what employee ambassadorship can accomplish for a company. Stated simply, ambassadorship is the partnership, and shared destiny, between employees and their employer. When this is done well, all stakeholders win.

Michael LowensteinMichael Lowenstein provides strategic consulting, research design and in-depth, leading-edge analysis that helps clients deliver outstanding business results through deeper customer experience, communication, relationship, employee and brand equity insights. Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialized research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.


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